Bengali Posts

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, “Before We Visit the Goddess”


Earlier this week I interviewed Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni via email about her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, published by Simon & Schuster. The review-cum-interview article has been published by newly launched literary website, Bookwitty.com on 20 May 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/573df5efacd0d0353bea32f7 . I am c&p the text below. One of the things I did not point out in the review but continues to bewilder me is the use of a Rajasthani woman on the book cover when all the books by the author focus on Bengali women.

 

One day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away…

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni occupies a capital place in global publishing as is evident in her moves between publishers from Picador to Penguin Random House and now to Simon & Schuster. She may be of Indian origin and her stories are very Bengali oriented but they have far greater international appeal. She moved to the USA in the 1970s but remains culturally sensitive to Bengali women’s stories. For years now she has worked with women’s organizations that help survivors of domestic abuse and trafficking. As she told me, “I am on the advisory board of Maitri in the San Francisco area and Daya in Houston. Maybe for this reason, it is important for me to write about strong women who go through difficult situations and are strengthened further by them. This is certainly true of my newest book, Before We Visit the Goddess. I never use the stories I come across in my activist work – those are confidential. But I am sure on some level they have influenced me as a writer and a human being.”

Her early works focused on the known world of Bengali women in the villages and cities, interpersonal relationships, on the home, inside the kitchen, women to women, and the importance of gossip. One such work, Mistress of Spices (1997) was turned into a film in 2005 with noted Bollywood actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

A decade later, the path breaking The Palace of Illusions ( 2008) was published. It is a feminist retelling of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata from the point of view of the King of Panchala’s daughter. It was a bestseller and according to Pan Macmillan India, now years after publication it continues to sell steadily at around 15,000 copies every year. This was a watershed moment in Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s life as a writer. The Palace of Illusions is now to be made into a film directed by the legendary Aparna Sen, which Divakaruni says she is very excited about. She also began to write young adult fiction such as Brotherhood of the Conch series (2003), in reaction, she told me at the time, to racist abuse she experienced with her sons in the US post 9/11.

She quickly returned to writing her trademark literature. Her later novels are written with a stronger voice and with an assertion of her multi-cultural makeup. As she says, “I have many identities, but ultimately labels are just that – labels. My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas. … I would like to think of myself as a global, multicultural writer with roots deep in India – and now Houston.”

She writes with great sensitivity to youth especially immigrants coming to the US. The confusion they face, the hostility, the racism, negotiating their way through life but also the unexpected benevolence of humankind that exists.

Before We Visit the Goddess is Divakaruni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. In the fashionable mold of contemporary fiction with a five-generation saga, it predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women, Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much, much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakaruni’s novels is the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories woman experience and the cultural differences of living in India and the US.

“My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas.”

To her credit, Divakaruni creates charmingly and deceptively simple women-centric novels. She never presents a utopian scenario focusing only on women and excluding any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly help them develop into strong personalities:

“I believe in the right of women to live a life of dignity and make their own choices about important decisions in their lives. Therefore, I believe in women’s education, empowerment, and financial independence. These themes are all very important in Before We Visit the Goddess.”

It could be, for instance, the timid homemaker Bela’s insistence on taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise, winning, or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbor, Kenneth, who helps her to establish herself successfully as a food blogger. Without being over-sentimental, Kenneth is tender and radiates pure love.

Divakaruni wrote about her character, “The young gay Caucasian male, Ken, became one of my favorite characters as I was writing him. I hope his unusual relationship with Bela will surprise and delight readers.”

Even the bright Tara who, besides a stray phone call or two, disappears from her family’s life after her parents’ divorce lives an adventurous decade. This includes working at a second-hand shop, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive”, or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Texas with equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. What is admirable about these women is that despite humiliation and hardship, they strive to get ahead.

The stories also work beautifully if read aloud. To my delight, I discovered that Divakaruni does just that with passages from her stories while drafting them, since “you become aware of the rhythm of the language you use”.

The structure of her prose is like a fluid stream of consciousness, evident in the manner in which she plays with the epistolary form and breaks it up in the first chapter when Sabitri is writing a letter to her granddaughter, Tara. Divakaruni believes that with women, “our thought-connections are often emotional ones.”

It is exactly this emotional resonance she wishes to explore and exploit in Before We meet the Goddess, deeming it a “novel-in-stories”. It is “a form that allows me to go through three generations of lives, their ups and downs, in an agile and swift manner, a non-chronological manner. This is important for me, because in some ways this is a novel about memory and how it colors and shapes our understanding of our life. Each chapter in the novel is a stand-alone story, focusing on a moment in the lives of these women, an emotionally significant moment, perhaps a moment of transformation – either good or bad. The stories have many narrators – not just the three women, but the man important in their lives – even if just for one day. Such a structure allows me to organize the novel according to emotional resonance.”

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without making any of the experiences sentimental, such as young Bela’s pain, or the loneliness, and whimsical and wretched behavior of Leelamoyi, Bela’s wealthy benefactress. Her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but she also develops the inter-generational differences magnificently. She did her research, she said, by conversing with young Indians including those who have moved to or are studying in the US, and speaks via Skype to classes in colleges that teach her books. She is active on social media and “loves interacting with her readers”.

At a time when debate rages in the US as to whether the word “India” should be replaced with “South Asia” in school history textbooks, Divakaruni’s novel is more than auspicious. According to The New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.

Divakaruni’s books have always elegantly examined multi-cultural identities and what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi (people from the Indian sub-continent or South Asia who live abroad). In her masterfully crafted Before We Visit the Goddess, young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians — not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently, she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had any for generations. So a posting to India is as much of an exciting new adventure as it would be for anyone else visiting the country for the first time. Divakaruni’s latest novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

20 May 2016

“Alice in Wonderland” continues to inspire readers across the world

( My article on Alice in Wonderland has been published in Hindustan Times popular and widely circulated Sunday 20151018_065049supplement Brunch on 18 October 2015. It is a generous two-page spread in print20151018_065100 with the title “Curiouser And Curiouser”. I am c&p the text from the digital version here. The original url can be viewed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/alice-in-wonderland-continues-to-inspire-readers-across-the-world/story-NKnM2TiOACiTMXQXtUI51M.html )

Scottish writer George MacDonald persuaded Carroll to self-publish Alice. It had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother – and the family loved it. (Above, Carroll with Mrs MacDonald and her children.) (Getty Images/Science Source)

Who’d have thought a self-published story written for the daughters of a friend would become a world classic, eagerly bought, borrowed and downloaded even now, 150 years later?

 Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He wrote it for Lorina, Alice and Edith, the three daughters of his friend, Reverend Henry Liddell.

Start of many things

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit and discovers a nonsensically delightful world with colourful characters like the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare. More writers, artists and creators all over the world have credited Alice as an inspiration than any other book, thanks to its imaginative world filled with fantastic linguistic acrobatics in rhyme and prose.

That the book should have emerged in the staid Victorian era of verbose and righteous prose says much for the power of creativity. Carroll was persuaded to publish Alice with his own illustrations, by Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald.

The story had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother. The family thoroughly enjoyed the tale, and Carroll self-published it. Then, it was edited and published by Alexander Macmillan.

Alice, coverLewis Carroll requested the well-known artist of Punch, Sir John Tenniel to create the illustrations, many of which were ultimately based on the original drawings made by the author. To commemorate the 150th year of its publication, Macmillan, the original publisher, has produced a scrumptious edition of The Complete Alice, with the original Tenniel illustrations in full colour. It is unusual for a publisher to be celebrating 150 years of a text, but Alice in Wonderland is perceived to be “a world text”.

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit. On the left is an illustration of the character by Carroll himself, and next to it (right) by Tenniel. (Photos: Stapleton Collection/Corbis, The Print Collector/Corbis)

“It’s one of those texts that IS, like Shakespeare,” says graphic novelist Samit Basu. “Its constant reinterpretations in everything, from zombie comics to action-fantasy novels, have kept the original text alive, and that’s the greatest thing that can happen to any book.”

This is evident by the text’s vast influence across creative platforms and genres – storytelling, play on words, visual arts, filmmakers, still photography and translations.

According to filmmaker and author Devashish Makhija, a lot of motifs from Alice have been uncannily replicated across the world. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to have inspired Herge’s Thompson and Thomson in Tintin,” he says. “Batman’s Joker seems to have shades of the Mad Hatter, at least in his inexplicable (but profound) reliance on creating some sort of chaos in anything he communicates.”

And there’s more. When Alice fell down a rabbit hole to discover a topsy-turvy world, Makhija argues, she opened a clear story-telling device for creators of the future. “The ‘hole’ – although in existence before this book – was used pointedly for the first time as a portal connecting two dimensions through which a character ‘travels’.

It has since been used in versions in almost ALL of fantasy writing: the wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, the square drawn with chalk in Pan’s Labyrinth, platform 93/4 inHarry Potter, the bridge of Terabithia, HG Wells’s time machine and even the bathtub in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking.”

Follow that rabbit

“Every reader will leave with a different reading,” says Anil Menon, author of speculative fiction. “Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland has remained what it was intended to be: an invitation to play.”

Let loose in the imaginative world of Alice’s Wonderland, children often find their own wonderlands when they become adults, says photographer and musician Ed Valfre. “Several years ago, I wrote two children’s books about a boy in the backseat of a car who creates stories from all that he sees on the road. As Alice decides to go down the rabbit hole to discover the fantastical world of Wonderland, my hero goes down a similar path but it is inside his own head. The rabbit I follow is some ordinary thing we see every day. The rabbit hole is our imagination and we simply have to pay attention to discover it.”

Jeff VanderMeer, who won the Nebula 2014 for his novel, Annihilation, says that Alice “was such an influence. I Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reach Trilogy, Rabbit Totem, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfossstarted a far-future novel when I was 13 in which a human-sized bio-engineered white rabbit is found murdered at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. What appealed to me was the surreal aspect of Carroll’s book, even more so than the kind of mathematical logic and the humour. I couldn’t escape Alice even if I tried. It’s one of those constants, or compass points, that for some odd reason draws out originality despite being riffed off again and again.”

There are no white rabbits in filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s work, Unlimited Girls, but Vohra says it is deeply influenced by Alice in Wonderland. In the film, a young woman is drawn into an Internet chat room – kind of like a rabbit hole – and then proceeds on a journey through the world of feminism where she meets all kinds of characters and undergoes all kinds of transformations.

“I think Alice is (like a good Bollywood film, almost) one of those works that gives you permission to make a work out of what you see, what you feel as one,” says Vohra.

In many ways, Alice is a nonsense book. Not in the sense that it is the product of a muddled mind, but because of its willingness to see more in the world than a single outward façade. That’s the aspect that influenced children’s author, known especially for nonsense writing, Anushka Ravishankar the most.

“I remember reading Alice as a child and being fascinated, but also really disturbed because of the strange creatures and the weird, unworldly goings-on,” she says. “It was only much later that I began to appreciate the other elements – the nonsense, the logical games and the clever theories which the nonsense hid. I studied mathematics, so I do believe that Carroll’s mathematical mind came up with things that seem nonsensical but are actually possible given a different mathematical frame.”

It is extraordinary that a story spun to entertain a six-year-old girl on a boating trip has continued to brighten the lives of generations spanning more than a century.

And so just like the way it began in the beginning, Alice in Wonderland remains what it is – a story to delight children.

“My greatest joy,” says Samit Basu, “was the completely context-free sizzle that went through my brain when I first read it as a child, and there’s nothing that can either truly explain or analyse that.”

**

Looking back through translations

On 4 October, 1866, Lewis Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, stating, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.” But his friends were wrong as the editors of Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece, would tell Carroll if they could.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece documents the classic’s translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints. (Pictured in it is Alice Liddell, the little girl the book was written for)

This book, edited by Jon A Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, documents translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

“There are nine translations of Alice into Tamil, plus an unpublished draft, a short story, a serialised story, and a graphic version,” says Dr Rajamanickam Azhagarasan, contributor to the book. “It was popular among those involved in the movement for children’s literature from the ’40s through the ’70s. Each translation was unique, depending on which aspect the translators wished to highlight.”

Alice has been translated in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Nepali and Sinhala. Here (left to right) are translations in Malayalam (2000), Urdu (1981) and Oriya (2002).

Much like the way storytellers have always found new stories to weave out of the Indian epics, Alice’s translators in India have created different Wonderlands – for instance, by weaving mythological elements into the story.

“The Telugu translation of Alice was available as early as the mid-1950s,” says Suresh Kosaraju, trustee, Manchi Pustakam, Secunderabad.

Editor Sushama Sonak says, “Mugdhachi Rangit Goshta (The Many Coloured World of Mugdha) written in Marathi by short story writer GA Kulkarni was heavily influenced by Alice.”

In Malayalam, the first translation was published by Balan Publications. Lewis Carroll certainly influenced the well-known children’s nonsense writer in Bengali, Sukumar Ray, as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, who wrote wonderful detective stories in Bangla and translated Alice in Wonderland: it is called Ajab Deshe Amala.

Even Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, translated Alice into Russian. According to translator Sergei Task, “By and large, [Nabokov] translated the text as is, except for Russifying the names (Alice/Anya, Mabel/Asya, and the Rabbit got a last name – Trusikov) and introducing pre-revolutionary forms of address such as barin (master) and vashe blagorodiye (your honour). Of course, with the playful verses, he had to take liberties – again, trying to adapt them for Russian readers.”

18 October 2015 

Storyweaver, Pratham Books

final-logo-pratham-booksWelcome to StoryWeaver from Pratham Books : http://www.storyweaver.org.inbanner-2-fc6332eba5193186348e9c5190fee65b

A whole new world of children’s stories. It is a platform that hosts stories in languages across India and beyond. So that every child can have an endless stream of stories in her mother tongue to read and enjoy. StoryWeaver is an open platform designed to be innovative and interactive. It invites both, the weaver of stories and the reader to connect and share the fascinating world of words and illustrations. This then, marks a new chapter in children’s literature and publishing. Come discover the magic of stories and the joy of reading – a cornucopia that will delight endlessly.

Medianama has a wonderful article on Pratham Books and Storyweaver. It is available at: http://www.medianama.com/2015/09/223-pratham-books-open-source/ But I am also copy-pasting the text in case it is not easily available sometimes.

Non profit trust Pratham Books has launched StoryWeaver, an open source digital platform, which features 800 stories in 24 languages (14 Indian and 12 international languages), with an image repository of over 2,000 images. These will be openly licensed and free of cost; content creators and other users will be able to read, download, translate, version-ise and print through the platform. Users will also be able to create and publish new stories, using the Creative Commons licensed content on the site.

The stories are available in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi and Odiya, along with English translations to all these languages (and Tamil and Telugu, excepting Assamese and Malayalam). It lists publishers like itself, African StoryBook Initiative and World Konkani Centre. The stories can be filtered by reading levels as well. The platform provides DIY videos for creating and translating stories. ( https://storyweaver.org.in/tutorials )

Anyone can translate stories by clicking on the ‘translate’ option under the selected story, which redirects you to login via Pratham Books, Facebook or Google+ and provides a host of Indian and African languages, along with French, German and Spanish to translate to. It displays the original text for reference and once done translating it lets users put in a new title, creator details and publish. Pratham Books says that it has generated more work opportunities for illustrators through their CC work. It also states that its primary users are teachers, librarians, writers and parents.

The trust hopes that this move will not only encourage more content creation but also address the scarcity of multilingual story resources in India and multiply it. With the launch of the platform, the trust has also created a “Weave a story” campaign where it has roped in children’s books writers Anushka Ravishankar, Soumya Rajendran, Rohini Nilekani and Rukmini Banerjee to write a special story for children. StoryWeaver will invite users to translate these stories and the trust expects that 100 new versions will spawn out of the 3 original stories. The first story to be launched on the platform is Ravishankar’s “Its All the Cat’s Fault”, which is expected to get 5 derivative versions today.

Google Impact Challenge shortlist
In August 2013, Google had shortlisted 10 non-profit organisations in India as finalists for its Google Impact Challenge intended to support a technology based social project with an award of Rs 3 crores. Among these was Pratham Books which intended to develop an open source platform to create and translate 20,000 e-books in minimum 25 languages to enable 20 million book reads by 2015.

Launch of books crowdsourcing platform
In June, Pratham Books launched a crowdsourcing platform called DonateABook which let nonprofits and schools raise funding for books in order to provide them to Indian children. It connected book seekers with people who wanted to give books away. Then, there were 30 campaigns on the website, looking to raise between Rs 3,500- Rs 110,000 for multiple cities and towns in India.

The projects have been assigned for underprivileged kids, kids from government schools in villages, immigrant construction workers’ children and more, and sought books across Indian and English languages. Individuals as well as organisations who wanted to get books for the children they work with could also start campaigns on the platform. The platform sought to get 50,000 books for children by this Children’s Day, which falls on 14 November every year.

The Bangalore-based trust publishes cost effective books across Indian languages. It publishes books across genres like fiction, science, history, maths and nature among others. It claims to have published over 300 original titles in 18 languages, totalling up to 2,000 books across genres of fiction, nonfiction, and story books on science, history, mathematics and nature

 

8 Sept 2015

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”

EFB-front

( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015

 

Amit Chaudhuri

Telling-TalesIn 2014 Amit Chaudhuri published two books – Telling Tales ( a collection of essays) and Odysseus Abroad ( a novel). Some of the other notable literary engagements were delivering the Infosys lecture “The Origins of Dislike” (http://www.infosys-science-foundation.com/amit-chaudhuri-lecture.asp) , Guest Director of The Times Cheltenham  Festivals Literature 14, co-organising the second edition of The University of East Anglia India Creative Writing course in Calcutta ( https://www.facebook.com/pages/UEA-launches-International-Creative-Writing-Course-in-India/473787526006225?fref=ts ), a symposium on literary activism ( Anjum Hasan, “On Recovering the Literary through Literary Activism”, December 26, 2014 http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/recovering-literary-activism ), contributor to  Granta:130 focussing on India ( The first volume on India was Granta:57. Amit Chaudhuri is the only Indian author present in both issues, seventeen years apart). All these literary engagements are apart from his regular teaching assignments and musical performances.

Reading Telling Tales is a like the Casebook series of critical essays, popular in English Literature studies. The difference being the Casebook series consisted of a collection of essays by various critics, analysing a text or an author. Whereas in Telling Tales it is a melange of writing by Amit Chaudhuri. These were previously published as columns, introductory essays, commentaries, chapters from books etc. Pieces of writing that could not be accommodated elsewhere but are an integral part of Amit Chaudhuri’s development as a writer and critic. These essays are not necessarily meant to be read from cover-to-cover otherwise the monotonous of style will overwhelm the reader. It is preferable to dip into the essays and discover literature. Three related links: An interview Amit Chaudhuri gave to AuthorTV ( http://www.authortv.in/author/amit-chaudhuri ); a review in the New Statesman by Deborah Levy  where she says, “Chaudhuri’s intellectual project is not so much to cross academic boundaries as to remove the sign that says: “No playing on the grass”. Like Barthes (and Lacan), he sees merit in concentrating less on the meaningful and more on the apparently meaningless. For this reason I relished every tale and essay here, not least because Chaudhuri subtly politicises the ways in which both writing and writers are culturally placed, described and sanitised.” ( http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/telling-tales-amit-chaudhuri-principle-mode-our-epoch-isnt-business-business) Finally a review by Dilip D’Souza where he says “Amit Chaudhuri has grown from a writer with humour to one in love with excess words.” [“Baffling verbosity” Tehelka, I March 2014, Issue 9, Volume 11 (http://www.tehelka.com/baffling-verbosity/?singlepage=1)]

Odysseus AbroadOdysseus Abroad is in a class of its own. It is better appreciated if familiar with some of Amit Chaudhuri’s writing. The novel is experimental—his experiments in literature, fascination with language ( English and Bengali), playing with words and meaning, hidden jokes in structure and of course the “journey” of the protagonist. The novelist Amit Chaudhuri has access to a number of literary gatherings, student conferences and is the bridge between two cultures — English Literature and Indian Literature. By being at home in two distinct cultural and geographical locations — India and Great Britain, there is a sense in Odysseus Abroad that Amit Chaudhuri is attempting to make a “bridge” between the high culture of classical literature and the low culture of the mundane and dull lives of ordinary folks. In an interview he gave to he Hindu in Nov 2014 he said, “plot is an overrated device”. ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/i-am-drawn-to-the-quirky-by-vaishna-roy/article6555245.ece )

2014 has been a prolific year for Amit Chaudhuri. What will 2015 bring?

3 January 2015 

 

Shibram Chakraborty

Shibram Chakraborty

Shibram ChakrabortyThe Merry Adventures of Harshabardhan and Gobardhan is a delightful collection of stories about two brothers — Harshabardhan and Gobardhan. They are well-meaning but bumbling chaps. The stories are gently told but the brothers can get into some silly scrapes. With every story you want to read more and more. For once the book blurb encapsulates the stories well — “Mildly dishonest timber merchants, foolhardy adventure buffs, reckless explorers, blundering do-gooders, occasional philosophers and gullible blokes, the endearing duo creates the most hilarious misunderstandings, commits the silliest mistakes and falls into the weirdest traps.” I read the book in one go. Loved it!

According to the delightful author blurb in the book, Shibram Chakraborty ( 1902-1980) wrote extensively for both children and adults, using his trademark humour and wordplay to tell stories about the peculiarities of human beings. Chakraborty was a free spirit who ran away from home as a boy, took part in the freedom movement and went to jail as a teenager — he never finished school — and lived alone in a boarding house in Calcutta most of his adult life. His stories are about eccentric people in absurd situations, and brim over with fun and puns.

Arunava Sinha is an experienced translator. By now I have lost count of the number of books he has translated from Bengali into English. Many of his translations have been sold abroad as foreign editions in English and other languages. Here is the link to an interview  I did with him in 2011:  http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/08/22/arunava-sinha-on-translating-buddhadeva-boses-classic-tithodore-and-the-future-of-translations/ His translation of this particular book is as competent as the others I have read by him. This translation made me giggle and chuckle. Then I was left wondering. Did he have to intervene in the text to transmit and convey some of the original puns from Bengali into English? Is translating humour difficult? How do you translate wit? Did he have to worry about losing some of the original material or did he manage to retain much of it? And this is what he said ( quoted with permission):

Sometimes I think this book is really for adults, not kids. At least, the wordplay is not for children. The policy I followed was to always have a pun in the translation whenever there was a pun in the original. And yes, it was not possible to retain both the meaning and the pun in most cases, so it was pun first. In that sense there was a replacement of material, but none of it changed the story. The puns don’t really take the story forward, they are effects. I did some readings to kids in schools, and they seemed to enjoy the stories. 

I would happily recommend this book for confident readers of 11+ and above. But I suspect this book will go down very well with adults too. The stories would travel well to foreign shores too since they are not too complicated in cultural details. The illustrations by Shreya Sen Handley complement the stories well.

Shibram Chakraborty The Merry Adventures of Harshabardhan and Gobardhan. Translated by Arunava Sinha. Hachette India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 150 Rs. 250

28 June 2014

 

Guest post: Arunava Sinha on translating for children and adults

Guest post: Arunava Sinha on translating for children and adults

 

When I heard that Arunava Sinha would be attending JumpStart as a panelist. I wrote him immediately. I was curious to know if he changed his methodology when translating for different kinds of readers or did the story remain a story for him.  So he sent me this short note about his experiences at translating for children/YA as opposed to translating for adults.

Arunava has published with many publishers. He has also translated stories from Bengali for children ( Puffin) and written an introduction to a translation (Hachette India). Arunava Sinha, the Rhythm of Riddles

This is what Arunava had to say:

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I do not translate children’s or young adult’s literature differently from adult literature. As a translator, my mission is still to be true to the original text and uphold the intention of the writer (at least, my perception of the intent). I trust the writer to have taken care of the factors involved in writing for children – directness, choice of words and phrases, subject, voice, and so on. I do not tailor the text in any way for the readership. If the writer makes certain demands of the young reader, or has certain assumptions about what they know already, so do I. I do not intervene to make things more easily digestible for the reader of the translation because she or he happens to be young.

Reading children’s literature in translation is, arguably, no different from reading adult literature in translation. Unfortunately, not enough literature for children or even young adults seems to be available in translation. As readers in two, maybe three, Indian languages, most of us are deprived of the variety of writing for children in India and elsewhere in the world. And so are our children. Logo

Arunava Sinha will be on the panel discussion “Speaking in Tongues”, 29 Aug 2013 @ 16:30 pm. The other panellists will be Urvashi Butalia, Rubin D’Cruz, Sampurna Chattarji and Shobha Vishwanath. Some of the issues that they will be addressing: “Translation is tricky. Dialogue is difficult. How can we know that a book that works in one language will work in another? Which stories travel? Which ones ‘stick’? Why are there so few children’s books translated from one Indian language to another? Are illustrations just as culture-bound as words?”

For more information about Jumpstart, registeration details etc: http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose  is an international publishing consultant and columnist.

Twitter: @JBhattacharji

22 Aug 2013

Arunava Sinha on translating Buddhadeva Bose’s classic “Tithodore” and the future of translations.

Arunava Sinha on translating Buddhadeva Bose’s classic “Tithodore” and the future of translations.

 

( This was an interview with Arunava Sinha, translator, that I did in 2011 for the Hindu. The original url is here: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/leave-nothing-out-add-nothing/article2539907.ece )

 

Arunava Sinha: A window for translation. Photo: Special Arrangement
Arunava Sinha: A window for translation. Photo: Special Arrangement

Arunava Sinha on translating Buddhadeva Bose’s classic Tithodore and the future of translations.

Arunava Sinha is an award-winning translator of classic and contemporary Bengali fiction. His “day job” is as an internet professional. He won the Vodafone-Crossword award (2007) for Chowringhee, which was also short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, UK (2009). He recently translated Buddhadeva Bose’s masterpiece, Tithodore (1949) as When the Time is Right. In this interview, Arunava talks about translating Tithodore, BB, and the future of translations.

Why and how did you get into translating Bengali writers?

I started with short stories in the late 1980s for a city magazine Calcutta Skyline. But the whole process gathered steam when Penguin published my translation of Chowringhee — which I had actually done at the author’s behest in 1992 -— 14 years later, in 2006.

On what basis do you make these selections?

The primary appeal is subjective: do I love the book and do I want my friends to read it? The only reason not to translate a book that passes these parameters is if it’s so rooted in a local culture and geography as to lose its richness when read in a different cultural context, as translations are.

When did you begin translating Tithodore?

I began in September 2009. The first draft took one month, working six hours a day. I translated as if I was “possessed” by the experience and felt bereft when the exercise came to an end. Once it was complete, I revisited it thrice to iron out all angularities of expression, but I firmly believe in the motto of “leave out nothing, add nothing”.

When the Time is Right reads very smoothly. Comment.

It tells an absorbing and dramatic story, marked by Buddhadeva Bose’s seemingly casual voice which is, actually, intensely poetic. Given that he was a notable poet and verse-dramatist himself, Bose seems to have used these skills in prose. While translating, I discovered that Bose’s prose is rich with the cadences and inflexions encountered in poetry. The conversations are never dull, the dialogue and self-expression is honed and always heard. His observations about people are nuanced and layered and his characters are very aware and articulate themselves through casual conversation. Bose understood language deeply and all his choices of word, phrase and form are deliberate.

When do you find the time to translate?  

Whenever I get a window, which could be hours at a stretch or a few minutes. I was lucky when working on Tithodore, in that my day job was not as demanding as it is now, allowing me to work for about six hours a day. Sometimes, I am working on three books in different stages in the production cycle: actually translating one, working on edits of another and proof-reading a third. When it comes to actual translation, it’s usually one book at a time, because once you’ve got a writer’s voice — or think you do — you don’t want it polluted by anything else.”

Have you considered translating poetry?

Considered, yes. But I’m not equal to the task. I’ve tried my hand at a few small poems, but my work with verse is not good enough to be published.

Where you ever trained in doing translations?

No training. Is there even such a thing in India yet? There should be though.

I hear translations are a very expensive and tedious process…

I don’t think a translator who loves the work they’re doing and the book they’re translating would consider it tedious. Expensive yes; you do have to invest plenty of time and energy. But that’s true of any creative effort, surely. The passion of sharing is what starts it off, but once you’re into it, the need to complete the work becomes a living force in itself.

How would you define a “good” translator?

One who is true to everything in the original — content, form, voice, cadences, spirit — and still make the final product as accomplished and effortless a read as the original.

Is it possible to tell a good translation from a bad one, especially if you do not know the primary language? 

Yes it is. Assuming the original title has been chosen well, if the translation reads awkwardly while telling a great story, you know it’s the translation that’s at fault here.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a international publishing consultant and critic. She also has a monthly column on the business of publishing, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online. 

 

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

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“Charming” is how Samit Basu describes No Child’s Play. Charming it certainly is. A novella written in Bengali (1990) and recently translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. It is a simply told sci-fiction novel, something that we would probably bracket in speculative fiction now. It has all the fancy footwork of embedding chips in the brains of foetuses by an evil-minded doctor, so as to control them and create an army of workers. It has all the lovely bits of bad men on the run, a scientist escaping from China and using false passports to reach America in order to help a baby who has been used as an experiment and then the creation of a sensitive robot. Much of this now seems plausible.

It is like reading a Gene Roddenberry story now. At the time of publication it must have been amazing to see how the imagination works, and the possibilities that lie with science. For instance his descriptions of the doors opening automatically when a person approached. Now such technology is common. So when many of the things that they describe come to pass it no longer seems extraordinary. Yet the story does not lose its charm. It remains a good story. Likewise with No Child’s Play.

As for the translation. It is done competently but “Indianisms” like “dicky” (instead of “dickie”) are retained in the English translation. Instead of translating it as the trunk or the boot of the car, the word “dicky” is used. It left me wondering how many allowances can we make in a translation transmitting a culture too. Do we aim for perfection in the destination language or make concessions for such words?

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay No Child’s Play Translated from the Bengali by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay Harper Perennial, HarperCollins, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 250.

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